A New Public Diplomacy Imperative
Monday, August 13th 2012
A few years ago, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy at the State Department declared that the Marshall Plan “still stands as the greatest example in our nation’s history of public diplomacy done right.”
Who knows? Maybe Judith McHale was inspired by the fact that her own new office in the State Department was the same one George C. Marshall occupied as Secretary of State. Or, maybe the fact that she was speaking in Lexington, Virginia at the time had something to do with it. But she was right.
The Marshall Plan still stands today as an example of strategic communication and policy coordination. The approach Secretary Marshall followed in formulating the plan which bears his name clearly encompassed the ten principles that underpin modern public diplomacy.
McHale's “Marshall Plan as public diplomacy” concept came back to me as I read the excellent report issued August 7 by the American Security Project. It is the one called “The New Public Diplomacy Imperative.”
The author, Matthew Wallin, is a policy analyst at ASP who comes with a master’s degree in public diplomacy from University of Southern California. To judge by the crisp insights and clear thinking evident in this paper, public diplomacy folk should keep an eye on Wallin.
He gets it.
One of Wallin’s key arguments is that we do major damage to American credibility by over-promising and under–delivering. His example is the much heralded Cairo University speech made in June, 2009 by President Obama. Wallin lists the seventeen specific commitments the President made to the Muslim world in that speech, such things as closing Guantanamo detention facility, pursuing resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. internships for Muslim students, opening “scientific centers of excellence” in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, and “supporting democracy everywhere.”
His point is not that we should fault President Obama for having failed to do many of these things. Sure there were political and other obstacles that got in the way. But, because he has failed to accomplish many of the key promises, the unfulfilled commitments have continued a trend of disappointment in the eyes of many Muslims. It is unfortunately a record that fits with the narrative that flows throughout the Arab world and reverberates among many Muslims. Better to promise less, and deliver more than the audience expects.
This over promising and under delivering is unfortunately an all too frequent feature of American diplomacy. Too many of our senior leaders demand that the bureaucracy produce lists of “deliverables” for them to announce when they make foreign trips. Too many official visits end with announcements and promises that are quickly forgotten by all but the hopeful recipients. All this makes it doubly difficult for the public diplomacy officer to win trust and build credibility.
Another of Wallin’s significant findings is highlighted in a commentary by the Heritage Foundation’s Helle Dale: “The ASP study highlights the need for metrics in PD. Yet finding appropriate metrics for evaluating PD has traditionally been an area of ambiguity and difficulty….Perhaps an effective method for collecting PD metrics lies in one of its fundamental tenets: listening. It is through feedback from the targets of our PD efforts that we will learn the most about how we are doing as communicators and understand how we need to improve.”
If you care about public diplomacy, you need to click on the link above and read Wallin’s paper from beginning to end. I particularly like ASP’s list of public diplomacy principles, perhaps because they read a lot like a list I drew up myself some years ago. Wallin gives a good but not exhaustive explanation of each principle.
Herewith, slightly edited and reordered, are ten rules for highly successful public diplomacy
· Have and understand the policy objective
· Establish a communication goal
· Determine how you will measure success and failure as you go toward that goal
· Identify the audience you must reach to achieve the goal
· Listen to the audience, understand what they are thinking and why
· Establish a narrative that fits your goals with the audience’s beliefs, values, perceptions
· Be authentic, honest and truthful
· Find partners, allies and build coalition of the like-minded
· Use existing, already successful means of engaging with your audience
· Under-promise and over-deliver – like George C. Marshall did.
Matthew Wallin concludes the ASP paper thusly: “The problem with American public diplomacy is not about better ‘explaining the story of America’ – it’s about better understanding ourselves and the people we communicate with.”